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Learning Arc

Reading inside the lines.


Sports news conferences are a strange bit of theater. Reporters ask coaches and players to say how much they hate the other team, and the players and coaches have to find ways to avoid saying they hate the other team, even if they do. The reporters must then reword questions and the coaches and reporters restate answers, which breeds all kinds of new terms which are practically like a new dialect, but which conceal the fact that very little is ever really said. Herein are a few new terms I learned at this year's Sweet 16.

"Inside the paint": The area beneath the rim that extends to the free-throw line where the size and speed and dexterity of players are clarified by pressure as they get closer to the basket. This is a major portion of the offensive game (3-point shooting outside the arc being another), where the skill of players in getting the ball into the basket is weighed against their tendency to foul one another. The need for gentleness in contact at high speeds is part of what makes the game, at least to this novice viewer, a beautiful thing to watch. Also that the arc of balls thrown from a distance mirrors in a lovely way the arc of the paint demarcating 3-point territory.

"Soft piece": What this article is, apparently. According to a friendly and camera-ready young reporter from a Kansas television station, the sort of culture-type story where you report on stuff surrounding the game (e.g. interviewing fans on their knowledge of the opposing team's hometown, writing about the city where the game is taking place) is considered "soft" — as opposed to the "hard" story of game stats and play-by-play and What This Means to the Conference. Maybe this makes sense: physics, chemistry and other fields requiring analytical, measurable research are considered "hard sciences," where subjective fields such as sociology are considered "soft sciences."

The Kansas guy told me that a Wichita TV crew went around asking Kansans things such as "What's the capital of Virginia?" and the Kansans didn't do real well. Maybe if you'd asked some Missouri people, results would've been better. To keep this article from being entirely soft, I will here spoil the ending by reporting that what contributed to KU's demise at VCU's hands was its terrible 3-point shooting. Normally a terror outside the paint, Kansas made 2 of 21 three-pointers during the game. That's 9.5 percent, which ain't great, I don't care how soft you are.

"Long": Term used to describe the height of individual players or an entire team, in lieu of "tall," which maybe doesn't sound technical enough. As in, "They're long like an NBA team," spoken about the Rams on their Thursday open practice by a local with big arms, a sleeveless shirt and very long hair under a worn baseball cap. For all this roughage, said local had a disturbingly delicate face and full, pouty lips, and altogether seemed like the male on the cover of a romance novel sold in a truck stop (or maybe a romance novel set in a truck stop). This chicken-fried Fabio inspired me to re-evaluate certain previously held conceptions of height, male beauty and sleeves.

"Butt holes": The body parts VCU forward Jamie Skeen was prepared to compare the Morris twins to, based on pregame rumors, until he actually played against them and amended the assessment to "really cool" and "really good." Skeen's honesty was, I think, typical of VCU's players and coach, despite what I said above about everybody lying. Let's face it: The game of media tweaking is played right alongside the game with the balls, and a player's success depends not just on his ability to throw or run, but also to navigate the news conferences and social niceties. More than one great player has totally lost the media game — those are stats I'd like to see.

"Play the team, not the jerseys": A bit of basketball Zen which reminds us to ignore all the great and terrible things we've heard about the opposing team, the reputation that makes them menacing, and simply play the team which stands before us, here and now. It's a way of avoiding intimidation, but also of being in the moment — which is what is behind the joy of watching athletes. Watching people be, live on television. Smart's awareness of this state of mind is what allows him to maintain his team's confidence and forward march against all the criticism — and to use a video of naysaying commentators to pep up his team and prove everybody wrong. — B.R.

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